Strengthening communities, improving lives: Tulsa Area United Way’s history of community collaboration and partnership runs deep

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TULSAPEOPLE MAGAZINE.

Julie Wenger Watson March 29, 2024

On April 1, Tulsa Area United Way celebrates 100 years of service to the Tulsa community. The nonprofit organization, which began in 1924 as the Tulsa Community Fund, works with individual donors and companies to raise funds to support over 160 programs in six counties in northeast Oklahoma through partnerships with other nonprofits as well as collaboration and social innovation grants.

“‘One Hundred Starts with One’ is our centennial theme,” says Alison Anthony, president and chief executive officer of Tulsa Area United Way. “Our 100 years started with one year, 1924, and with the need. It also starts with one volunteer making a connection with one person in need, one donor making a difference in this community with a donation that helps lift one person out of poverty.”

Today, TAUW raises over $25 million annually to support its mission of improving lives and strengthening communities with a focus on the areas of education, financial stability, and health and safety. Although the name has changed over the years, the mission has remained the same. Today, TAUW raises over $25 million annually to support its mission of improving lives and strengthening communities with a focus on the areas of education, financial stability, and health and safety. Although the name has changed over the years, the mission has remained the same. 

Beginnings

TAUW’s precursor, the Tulsa Community Fund, was established by a group of Tulsa businessmen in response to growing need in the community. The oil boom had created an era of rapid growth, attracting a growing population at a time when there were great socio-economic inequities and few social or governmental services to provide a much-needed safety net. In its first year, the organization successfully raised $238,895 to help fund 11 Tulsa-area health and human services organizations, six of which (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma, American Red Cross, Tulsa Boys’ Home, YMCA of Greater Tulsa and YWCA Tulsa) are still partnership organizations today. Later, in response to the start of World War II, the Community Fund joined with another local group called The War Chest to raise close to $500,000. The organizations started working together in 1942 and became the Tulsa Community Chest in 1947, and ultimately, the Tulsa Area United Way in 1974.

Over the years, TAUW has responded to countless changes and challenges, including the Great Depression and a polio epidemic within a decade of its establishment, a world war and a global pandemic.

“I think it’s so important to really pause and celebrate our history,” Anthony says. “I don’t think anybody would say we’re not in polarized and difficult times today, but then you look back at United Way and what the Community Fund started in 1924. We’ve navigated a lot as an organization.”

 

Tulsa and TAUW: History and change

In many ways, the history of TAUW parallels the history of the city itself. Societal roles, perspectives and expectations have changed dramatically in the last century, and TAUW has evolved to better reflect, respect and respond to the community it serves.

“Tulsa, historically from its origins, was a rigidly segregated city. The people who were the power brokers in the United Way’s early years, of course, were white men, which was the case throughout the city and throughout the nation,” says Hannibal B. Johnson, co-chair of TAUW’s centennial History and Education Committee. “But frankly, looking at the evolution of the United Way, and how it’s come to better reflect the diverse population and better serve that diverse population is something that’s important to celebrate. It hasn’t been stagnant or static. It’s really evolved.”

Johnson’s own involvement with TAUW extends over 20 years and during that time he’s focused much of his efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We developed a program called New Voices (August 2009) that still exists. It was designed to create a reservoir of people of color who were interested in and educated on nonprofit board governance,” he says. “There are 250 or 300 folks who’ve been through the program now. That’s an example of the evolution of the United Way to better understand the diverse population it serves, and to not only look at those people as recipients of service, but also as decision makers in the context of how these nonprofit dollars are allocated throughout the community.”

Other TAUW developmental programs include Women United, which helps educate and connect women while strengthening and developing their leadership and philanthropic skills. Similarly, NextGen United, whose members are in their 20s and 30s, encourages and develops younger community leaders, and Always United provides a path for retirees, and those close to retirement, to continue their own involvement in the organization.

Community

As TAUW turns 100, the organization celebrates its past with an eye toward a future of continued evolution and service.

“United Way is here for the most vulnerable. We’re here for the people who are homeless. We’re here for the people who are in mental health distress. We’re also here for the person who is working two jobs and still making tough choices about how to keep the lights on, or to buy food, or to just pay the rent,” Anthony says.

“The level of philanthropy here in Tulsa is extraordinary,” Johnson says. “A lot of time and energy has been invested in looking, in a strategic way, at what the problem is, and how to fix whatever systems are there that contribute to the problem. How to empower people so they’re better able to identify and take control of their own destiny — empowering people to be able to control the problem and their respective futures.”

Learn More at tauw.org

 

Women leading the Way

According to Alison Anthony, Tulsa Area United Way president and chief executive officer, TAUW has made efforts to include more women in leadership roles. In 1992, Clydella Hentschel was the first woman to co-chair the annual fundraising campaign. Two decades later, Becky Frank became the first solo female chair of the fund drive.

“I’ve always said that with the United Way, you always see the best side of everybody,” says Frank, Tulsa Area United Way Centennial chair.

Frank — chairwoman and partner of Schnake Turnbo Frank, a Tulsa-based public relations and management consulting firm — is a longtime community leader and advocate whose relationship with TAUW dates back to 1986, when she first joined the organization as vice president of communications. According to Frank, it was a fascinating experience from day one.

With then-TAUW president and CEO Kathleen Coan unexpectedly ill, Frank’s first assignment at her new job was to write the organization’s annual report.

“It was baptism by fire, the first week that I was at United Way,” Frank recalls. “I was totally new to the organization, and it was going to be printed in the Tulsa World the following Sunday, so I just had to jump in and figure out what United Way was all about. It actually turned out to be a great way for me to learn very quickly about the organization.”

The list of people with whom Frank worked with during her tenure at TAUW reads like a “Who’s Who” of Tulsa business and community leaders, names like Jack Zink (John Zink Co., Zeeco), Chester Cadieux (QuikTrip), Steve Jatras (Memorex Telex) and Hentschel. There was also Phyllis Radcliffe, a Tulsa communications professional, bank executive and community volunteer who helped hire Frank and became a mentor and friend to her.

Hentschel, who died in 2012, worked with the TAUW annual campaign for many years before co-chairing the 1992 campaign with her husband, David. That same year, she also helped Frank start the United Way Day of Caring in Tulsa. TAUW established the Clydella Hentschel Award for Women in Leadership in her honor in 2012, with Hentschel as the first honoree.

“I have so much gratitude to Dave and Clydella,” Frank says. “That really was the beginning of changing the path in terms of diversifying leadership for the United Way.”

Although Frank eventually moved on to other employment after seven years with TAUW, she’s remained involved in a variety of ways throughout the years, including helping to raise over $26 million as TAUW’s first female solo campaign chair in 2013. As part of her efforts to ensure a successful fundraising campaign, Frank visited each of TAUW’s 62 partner agencies, meeting with their employees, as well as the individuals those agencies served. 

“That was something that was really important to me,” she says. “It was such a great experience for me to connect with the directors, their staff and their volunteers. In some instances, clients who wanted to share their stories of how they’d been helped by those agencies would be a part of those meetings. That was really helpful to me as I was out speaking on behalf of United Way because I always had stories to share about people that I had met and the support these agencies provided.”

During her time as campaign chair, Frank made an effort to reach out to the women of the community, encouraging members of TAUW’s Women’s Leadership Council (now Women United) to join her on agency tours and holding receptions specifically for women. Frank believes that support helped her to not only meet — but actually to exceed — the 2013 campaign fundraising goal. 

“Reaching the goal is not an ego thing for people,” Frank says. “It’s because you get to know these nonprofits, and you see the work they’re doing, and you want them to have every dime that they need to be able to fulfill their missions and do the work in their communities. That’s what’s driving you.”

When she joined the organization almost 40 years ago, Frank never imagined the impact it would have on her life, both professionally and personally.

“If I take a United Way brochure and just go down that list of those nonprofits and mark the ones that either I had a connection with, a family member of mine had a connection with, or a friend of mine or one of my employees, I could mark off half the agencies where somebody was being helped in some way,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important when we’re out talking about United Way that we’re educating those employee bases, so they can see. So they know about those resources.”

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